I was born on June 6th, 1956 in the Jersey City Medical Center in Jersey City, NJ. This was in the original, massive, multi-building Art Deco Medical Center, which went through abandonment and decay to be reborn as high-rise condos. But I wasn’t raised in Jersey City. When I was three or four years old, we moved one town over to Bayonne.
But I wasn't raised in Jersey City.
Bayonne is more well-known than its size or nature would warrant, although mainly as a punch line. It’s mentioned in The Honeymooners, The Odd Couple TV show and in a couple of SNL skits. I’m sure there are more. It has churned out more entertainers than most towns its size; you have likely heard of some of them. I went to school (albeit with a seven grade gap) with George RR Martin. Technically it’s a suburb of New York City, but it would be hard to imagine a less suburban setting. In the 19th century it was a near-at-hand place for rich Manhattanites to vacation, but that was beginning to change by the time of the Civil War. The clean, swimmable waters that surrounded it on three sides were transformed into toxic soup by the turn of the century. Longer than I have been alive, it’s been a place of refineries, petrochemical plants and factories.
A crowded, working-class town, a small city of contrasts. The industrial areas once known mainly for labor violence and massive, fiery explosions were a counterpoint to tree-lined residential streets, public housing projects crowded with bositerous kids, and a lively downtown shopping area. It once held the record for the most bars per capita in the United States.
And people. Diversity. Black and White. Immigrants and the descendants of immigrants; Poles, Italians, Jews, Irish, Hispanic. Poor, middle-class and a few rich, but mainly poor or not far from it. Friendly people, as is often the way among those who know, sometimes without realizing, that the ones who are really in charge are sneering at all of us equally. We enjoyed a very low crime rate compared with neighboring Jersey City or the rest of Hudson County. It’s a place where strangers converse and think nothing of it. Mayberry with tank farms.
When my Grandmother turned eighty, we held a surprise party for her in what passed in Bayonne for a fancy restaurant. She knew only that we were taking her to dinner. I and my then-wife exited the car early to make sure the way was clear – at eighty, Grandma walked a bit slowly. The lobby was packed with people waiting to be seated. Luckily, we had a reservation.
I had an idea. It took me about a minute to organize the crowd gathered in the foyer. My soon-to-be-ex was shocked. She was embarrassed. She tried to stop me. In her family, in her South Jersey home town, you didn’t interact much with strangers. A polite nod at most. The idea of rallying a bunch of people I didn’t know into a welcoming party was alien to her. It frightened her. Where she was from, you didn’t much talk to strangers.
When my parents led my grandmother through the front door, the entire lobby broke out into song. “Happy Birthday, dear Edna, Happy Birthday to you.”
It was a very Bayonne moment.
A hyper-annuated wannabee scientist with a lovely wife and a mountain biking problem.